Tomato Pesto Gratin

Tomato Pesto GratinTomato Pesto Gratin may seem like a summer dish if ever there was one, but the beauty of it is that it brings the familiar flavors of your farmer’s market bounty into your kitchen in the dead of winter. Last weekend, I was toiling around the kitchen after a week-long bout of bronchitis, anxious to cook and eat all the vegetables I could find. Having just spent seven full days with a stuffed nose and congested chest, I wanted bold flavors I could actually taste and enjoy. Side note: I’ll never take my taste buds for granted again. Digging through the crisper, I thought I’d make some omelettes, maybe with some red peppers and spinach, but therein, I spied five plum tomatoes that I had managed to forget about during our brief plague.
Tomato Pesto GratinI know, I know, tomatoes don’t belong in the refrigerator, but when illness set in, there was no common sense exercised about what belonged where, for how long, or why. We’re lucky the cats were fed and, occasionally, the dishwasher ran. Quickly, the idea for bruschetta came to mind, but with temperatures dipping well into the negative numbers, a cold salad alongside some eggs and toast, wasn’t all that appealing. But baked tomatoes were my quick next thought, and a damn good one at that. We had them again this weekend and I’m taking the leftovers for work on Monday alongside a salad and a hunk of crusty sourdough that we got this weekend at a new bakery in our neighborhood. I’m already looking forward to it!
Tomato Pesto GratinBecause I wanted these to be sweet, tender, and concentrated in tomato flavor, I seeded the tomatoes and then roasted them for 10 minutes without any of the filling. A little known fact about me is that I actually really dislike the taste of raw tomatoes, unless they’re in something like bruschetta or salsa where they’re broken down a bit by some kind of acid – lemon or lime, vinegar – and then mixed up with a ton of flavors I love – onion, cilantro or basil, lots and lots of garlic…yum!

Tomato Pesto Gratin

Once the tomatoes are halfway to jammy (that’s a technical phrase), I took them out of the oven and filled them with a tablespoon of homemade pesto I had in my freezer from last summer and then topped each little mound with a small amount of shredded  mozzarella and panko bread crumbs. They cook for another 20 minutes or until the tops become brown and crisp and the cheese and oil from the pesto are both bubbling away.

Tomato Pesto GratinThese are beyond delicious and such an easy any meal, any day of the week, kind of recipe. We had them with eggs – and may or may not have dipped our sourdough toast in all of the oil and juice – but these would be good along side a steak, grilled chicken, fish, as much as they’re a meal all their own with a hearty salad. Tomato Pesto Gratin is my favorite side dish of the New Year so far and I fully expect to fall back on it time and time again between now and actual summer. Between now and July, I plan to eat my fill and then some!

Tomato Pesto Gratin
Yields 5 servings

5 plum tomatoes
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1-1/2 teaspoons of garlic powder, divided
Salt & pepper
3/4 cup of pesto (mine was cold, so it made it easy to scoop rounded tablespoons into the tomato halves)
1/2 cup of shredded mozzarella cheese
3/4 cup of panko bread crumbs

Preheat your oven to 375°F. Slice tomatoes in half and scoop out seeds and center flesh. You can toss this or use it in a soup, salsa, or as part of a light pasta sauce at another time. In a bowl, add the tomatoes and then douse with two tablespoons of olive oil. Toss to coat and then arrange in a baking dish that is about an inch taller than the height of the tomatoes. Sprinkle a teaspoon of the garlic powder over the tomatoes and add salt and pepper. Bake for 10-15 minutes.

Remove the tomatoes from the oven and raise the temperature to 400°F. Fill each tomato half with a tablespoon of the pesto and top with approximately the same amount of shredded mozzarella cheese. Spoon 2 tablespoons of panko bread crumbs over each tomato half and top all of the pieces with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder. Return to the oven and bake for another 20 minutes or until the panko is lightly browned and crisp.

Cilantro Pesto

Oh, cilantro pesto, how do I heart thee? Let me count the ways! You were the impromptu, yet perfect, accompaniment to an otherwise basic quesadilla lunch and then, you were suddenly so much more than that! You were fresh and garlicky alongside baby carrots at snack time. You were aromatic and savory stirred gently into a bowl of ordinary chicken noodle soup. You upgraded my homemade hummus and made a quick, herbacious aioli blended with mayonnaise. You were good mixed into white rice with a squeeze of lime juice aside spicy chipotle-marinated flank steak. You were all the things! Swoon!

This little condiment is as simple to make as it is versatile. It’s also fairly inexpensive, which is a great thing in general, but especially for an item that can be used across different kinds meals and cuisines to make everyday foods something new again. Try it as a marinade for meats and seafood or stir some into your next batch of chicken salad. The uses for cilantro pesto are endless and a nice change from its beloved (but standard) sibling, basil pesto. What would you make with it?

Cilantro Pesto
Yields approximately 1 cup

1 bunch of fresh cilantro leaves, stems removed
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped roughly
2 Tablespoons of pine nuts (walnuts or sliced almonds can be substituted)
2 Tablespoons of fresh lime juice (about 1 large lime)
1/4 of a cup of olive oil
Salt and pepper

Heat 2 Tablespoons of olive oil in a shallow pan over medium-low for 2 minutes. Add the garlic and saute until it is lightly browned, about 2 additional minutes. Add the pine nuts and cook for 2-3 minutes, carefully tossing them in the oil after each minute. They are done when they turn golden in color. Remove pan from the heat and pour contents into a food processor and pulse a few times. Add the remaining ingredients and some salt and pepper. Process until all the ingredients are combined and the mixture resembles a paste. Store in an airtight container with a drizzle of olive oil covering the surface to prevent browning. Last in the refrigerator for about 2 weeks.

Note: You can also use an immersion blender if you’re without a food processor. In this case, you’ll want to pour the oil and garlic mixture on top of the other ingredients and then use the immersion blender so that they come into contact with the blades first and are properly pulverized. It may take a little bit more time to use the immersion blender and some stopping and starting to get all of the leaves minced and then combined, but it does work.